Tea: The Great Teacher of Life
There are traditions around tea that celebrate this ancient and wise tree, Camellia sinensis as medicine and a way of life. Once you dive into a journey of tea, it will change you. Give you new perspectives. Shape your habits. And open your heart. There is no other plant I have encountered that has changed my life more than tea and I am only just starting my journey. But I want to share more information about the traditions behind the leaves to bring awareness to this beautiful practice and how it can transform your life.
We were all introduced to tea at a young age. Now it has become engrained in us to turn on the kettle, pop a bag of tea in our favorite mug, without giving it much thought. But there is rich history behind this ancient plant. Wars have been fought over tea. In the modern age most of us are drinking tea without knowing much about it. We think a bag of tea with milk and sugar is all there is to tea. The rich culture and ancient traditions passed down through millennia do not get the recognition it deserves. And the true flavor of tea is watered down. Let us dive into a brief history behind the traditions, the energetics of tea, how different teas are made and how to incorporate cha dao (the way of tea) into your life.
A Brief History of Camellia sinensis
Where Camellia sinensis Was Discovered
Tea trees have been around for more than 50 million years. Yunnan Province in southern China is considered the birth place of tea. And the Lincang region is home of the oldest cultivated tree forest in the world, dating back 3,200 years. Today this area is home to 25 percent all species of plants and animals in China. Yunnan is home to more varieties of tea trees than anywhere else on Earth.
The original tea garden stretches from China, Vietnam, Burma, India, Thailand , Laos, and Myanmar. They are spread out over 200 different forest areas in these countries. This area is considered the golden triangle where the majority of narcotic drugs have been produced since the 1950’s.
The Story of the Tea Emperor; Shen Nong
There are many tea folk tales about Shen Nong, a mythical Chinese emperor known as the “Divine Emperor” that is considered a progenitor of traditional Chinese medicine. Legends say that he had the power to bring misfortunes and also the power to restore life. Yet people took their chance and journeyed up the mountain to see him. Shen Nong spent his days at one with nature, walking the land, studying the plants, animals, and meditating among the trees. He had all the answers to the Earth, sky, sun and stars.
The storytellers say that Shen Nong always had a pot of boiling water as he sat outside studying his surroundings and one day tea leaves happened to fall into the water. Forever shaping the ancient traditions of tea. Shen Nong’s meditation after his encounter with the tea told him many tales of enlightenment, of life, death, and everything in between. Much like what you will experience for yourself when you choose the path of tea.
The History of Cultivating Camellia sinensis
Cocoa, coffee, and tea are the three greatest beverages ever discovered in history. If you look up pictures of Camellia sinensis you most likely will see a small bush. But tea trees when left to grow wild can get as big as 30 ft. Tea is one of thirty members of the plant family Theaceae. There are thousands of different cultivars of tea but the main three are called the china bush, asam bush, and the java bush. But it is one plant that gives us what we all know as black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong, orange pekoe, red tea, English breakfast, earl grey and many more.
The first records of tea cultivation in China were recorded in the fourth century. Tea became the first global commodity shipped to markets on 6 continents. By the 8th century it spread to Japan. Through Venetian trading routes tea traveled to Europe in the mid 1500’s. By the 1700’s and 1800’s tea became a popular morning and afternoon beverage in England.
The British established their own tea plantations in India. And the Dutch grew tea in Indonesia. They cultivated what most westerners know as black tea. The years of traditions on how to properly cultivate Camellia sinensis was not passed on to the British. Thus they created a very bitter tea that is watered down with milk and sugar. Loose leaf old growth tea is much different than drinking it from a tea bag. Because the old growth tea is cultivated, harvested, and processed more thoughtfully. Keeping the medicinal properties in tact.
Medicinal Properties and Energetics of Camellia sinensis: The Western Herbalism View
Energetics: cooling & drying
Properties: stimulants, antioxidants, flavonoids, Vitamins A, B complex, E, and K catechins, polyphenols, alkaloids, 30 different minerals including potassium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and calcium.
Uses: cardio protective, energy, heart health, oral health, insulin resistance.
Active Compounds of Camellia sinensis
A cup of tea has several hundred active chemical components. The presence of polyphenols and alkaloids is the unique properties in Tea. Phenols are in the catechins where epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is the main component. This is what we commonly know as tannins, which gives tea the astringent properties.
The main alkaloid found in tea is caffeine. The caffeine compound may be identical to the caffeine in coffee. However, each plant forms different bonds. The caffeine in tea bonds with tannins which reduces the intensity and is more stabilizing. Caffeine in tea is absorbed over a longer period of time. Which you can feel drinking Camellia sinensis.
Tea caffeine stimulates the nervous and cardiovascular system by enlarging the diameter of the blood vessels in the cerebral cortex. Coffee caffeine effects blood circulation through the coronary system which stimulates and accelerates heart rate. Making it more of a intense excitant. Where tea is more of a gentle stimulant that sharpens the mind, increases concentration, and eliminates fatigue.
Physical Effects of Camellia sinensis
The medicinal effects of tea were studied more extensively in the Tang and Song dynasties. In Traditional Chinese Medicine tea was used to cure many illnesses including headaches, fevers, depression, anxiety, bad digestion, and obesity. In recent studies it has shown promise with cancer prevention and treats cardiovascular diseases. With virtues that contribute to longevity by stimulating the heart, strengthening the immune system and preventing cellular mutation. The different ways tea is processed the properties start to become more complex.
Drinking tea regularly helps lower lipid profiles and prevents oxidation of the arteries. Reducing and preventing the risk of arteriosclerosis. It reduces C reactive proteins and platelet activation that puts stress on the heart. Lowers blood pressure and heart rate variables caused by heart disease. A study with green tea proved it is a excellent aid with weight loss, lowering cholesterol and biomarkers of oxidized stress. Helping relieve symptoms of metabolic syndrome in obese individuals.
The chronically stressed culture that we are all apart of today, leads to the majority of diseases that we face. A daily traditional tea practice can help you reduce stress levels and find a calmer approach to your lifestyle. Tea often times leads you down a path of meditation which furthers your ability to change habits that cause stress.
Types of Tea
Each type of tea is going to have its own unique energetics and flavors. The quality of tea is influenced by the soil, climate, altitude, latitude, and how it is processed. Camellia sinensis needs loose, acidic soil, rich in minerals, nitrogen, potassium, and magnesium with good water retention. Its ideal climate is located in the mountains in a tropical or subtropical region. Different climatic variations can greatly develop different flavors.
Yunnan province of China is the birth place of pureh tea. There are two types of pureh, Sheng and Shou. Sheng is made with a long and slow fermentation process. Shou is a newer and more accelerated process that was invented to keep up with the demand of aged teas in 1970. It is fermented by first exposing it to air to oxidize it. First, piled on a store room floor where the temperature and humidity is controlled. Next, the leaves are sprayed with water and bacterial culture from previous batches of Shou, turned periodically, and left for a period of 45 to 60 days. As it ages the flavors become more complex and the price of the tea cakes can increase exponentially.
For those who are not used to aged teas, the dark, earthy, full-bodied flavor can be an acquired taste. But the grounding and meditative energetics of Shou Pureh makes it a winter time favorite. Facilitating quietude, reflection, and relaxation. Aged teas are warming to the body. Which aids stagnant winter digestion.
The black dragon known as Oolong tea has been grown in Taiwan and China since the 1600’s. Aged Oolongs differentiates from other teas by the way it is processed. First it is shriveled. Next, shaked, which is the crucial step to creating oolong. Then, it is fried to kill off the bitter enzyme. Rolled or twisted into small tea balls. Finally, roasted until it is dry to seal in freshness.
Oolong teas are grounding and help open the heart and the senses with the sweet, uplifting, floral qualities. Aged oolong teas help brighten your mood during grim winter days. Oolong tea can help with weight loss. Also, oolong has more antioxidants than green tea. Which means it is great for the immune system, metabolism and is anti-inflammatory.
In the west black tea is one of the best known teas. But in China black tea is known as red tea because of the reddish color. Red tea was the first kind of tea that became popular in England in the 18th century. And to this day is the most popular tea in India.
Red tea comes from buds off of Camilla sinensis that are already mature. The leaves are whiter and rolled. Breaking down the structure of the cell walls which triggers oxidation. In China the teas are withered and processed longer. The flavor notes of red tea become more concentrated and less astringent. Red teas are moving and enlivening. In the morning a cup of red tea will help awaken the mind and body. It is a good replacement for coffee.
White tea comes from the spring harvest. Fujian province in China specializes in processing white teas. The harvest period for white teas is a very short period of time, about two weeks. This special tea was usually reserved for emperors. Out of all types of tea, white tea is the least processed. The aroma of white tea is delicate and refreshing.
Seventy percent of China’s tea production today is green tea. The regions that mainly grow green tea are in southern China. Fujan, Zejiang, Anhui, Henan, Jiangsu and Jiangxi. Green tea is the young buds and leaves are that are picked. Then, the leaves go through the withering, heating, rolling, drying, and sifting process.
Cha dao, meaning “the way of tea” is when you turn tea into a lifestyle. Then that lifestyle becomes an art that stands for harmony, patience, respect, humility, flexibility, and serenity. When you experience your first ceremony of Cha Dao your world view will shift. When you experience tea in a ceremonial setting, often times it can be a strange feeling because you start to feel whole for maybe the first time. The tea opens your heart. The host serving the tea opens your mind. And the quiet moment gives you something that you rarely experience, mindfulness.
Our world is loud and always moving. The constant stimulation causes a lot anxiety and stress which leads to other health issues. Finding the way of tea in a turbulent world feels somewhat like a miracle. The tea grounds you down into the Earth, where you can feel your place within the natural world, maybe for the first time. The solace and peace you give yourself allows you to receive inner wisdom. If you allow this inner wisdom to continue to come through then it will lead to transformation.
Tea is the great connector to meditation, vitality, virtue, tradition, and community. Bring a bowl and some leaves home with you and start a daily mindfulness practice. Then see how your life will start to change in ways you never imagined.
Read how I personally first discovered the way of tea with a chance encounter while traveling around Colorado in this blog post here: Where to Discover Healing Tea in Telluride.